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Taking a walk into town

Stafford St. , south. Timaru, Sept. 2009
Stafford St. , south. Timaru, Sept. 2009

Walk  The Timaru Herald 4/9/2007

Timaru man Trevor Griffiths takes another trip down memory lane, this time sharing his memories of walking into town when he was much younger. Did you ever stop to think a little about you and your friends talking about old times – that that is really all we do have to talk about? We cannot predict the future, although some try, and in fact we live in the present, so there is little wonder that when friends assemble inevitably the conversation is always centred on past happenings. If you have a good memory you can enjoy the topics discussed and if your memory is poor you tend to feel left out of the trip down memory lane. Sometimes I have vivid recollections of events of 50, 60 or even 70 years ago, but I can have difficulty remembering what I had for breakfast.

My parents' home was in William Street and of course during the 30s, 40s and 50s walking everywhere was the common practice. Having to go to town on some errand we would, more often than not, choose to walk through Alexandra Square, across Browne Street and to Heaton Street. There was a butcher shop on the corner to which I was often sent and next-door was De Latours general store of all kinds of necessities but mostly groceries and confections.

TG Sheed and Son Contractors were just on the north side and ES Brookes yard, also a general contractor had his premises north again. Then of course came Butlers Service Station. Crossing North Street you entered Stafford Street and the commencement of the business heart of Timaru. The changing times, of course, have seen many businesses come and go. Some that are worthy of mention between North and Woollcombe streets are the tinsmiths shop of Mr Hitch and Son. You could not help looking in the window because all of his products would sparkle in the bright light. His products were very much sought after. He made all manner of kitchen utensils combined with many farm and dairy requirements. All of his products have since been superceded by plastic and other modern materials.

Adjacent to Hitch's was Southgate and Sons, plumbers. The next store used to be very popular with many residents of South Canterbury. It was McGruer and Davies department store and was directly opposite Cliff Street. It was the type of establishment where the employees would enter from school and remain there all their working lives. Two of these would be Jessie Orr and Harry Cullen. I can still see Jessie's ample form biking home from work and Harry in his brown striped suit resplendent with his auburn hair and tape measure around his shoulders. One Friday night while walking home from town, sometime during 1943, I was passing the store and saw an American sailor, recognisable from his navy P jacket and his circular white hat, take a pair of football boots from an outside stall on the pavement. I was unsure what do do but went into the store entrance and summoned Mr Davies who quickly came outside and confronted the sailor who then drew a . 45 Navy pistol and pointed it at Mr Davies. Having more or less forgotten the incident I was very surprised to hear Mr Tait at the Boys High School assembly on Monday morning ask for the student who witnessed an incident at McGruer Davies department store on Friday night to report to his office.

Between this well-known store and Woollcombe Street there were two places of business worthy of note. One was Pages Caneware and Basketware shop and EC Ayres Chemist shop. Both were popular businesses who served the community with distinction.

Moving on down Stafford Street the Theatre Royal brings back memories of a different kind. Tucked into the front of the old building frontage was Mrs Mackay's Black and White Confectionary shop. It was distinct because the black and white theme was all over the inside as well as the street frontage. Mrs Mackay had the franchise to supply ice-cream and confections to the Majestic Theatre and the Theatre Royal. As a boy of 10 or 11 I worked for a time as an ice-cream boy at both places. Panic would prevail when both picture theatres had their interval at the same time. In a good week I took home 10 or 12 shillings for six nights' work. These days the Theatre Royal is nowhere near as busy as in those earlier times. All the modern electronic gadgets have taken their toll. The Switzerland Ice Ballet caused great excitement in the district as did the visit of the very popular Vienna Boys Choir. Probably one of the greatest functions held in the theatre was the Queen Carnival to raise money for the war effort. Many fundraising functions were held and the Royal was packed to bursting on many occasions. The selected "queens" were Jean Horwell for the army, Sister Adams and her deputy Florence Carney for the navy and Eileen Hetherington for the air force. The whole idea was extremely well supported and thousands of pounds were raised for the cause. Because my dad was a member of the drama league I was present at many performances of all kinds and often helped with shifting scenery, etc, back stage. Those of you who remember the Theatre Royal of the old days will recall the very heavy stage curtains that would go up and down quite a few times during a performance. From back stage I was amazed to see the curtain raised and lowered by one man only. His name was Joe Neeson. At the appropriate moment he would take a short run and jump up five or six feet and bring the monstrous thing down on his own. He did this for many years.

The Majestic Theatre was managed by Mr Kennedy, affectionately known as "Hoppy" because of his affliction. In fact for a long period of time he was in charge of both theatres. The staff too were interchangeable and men like Clarrie Blackwood, Jim Duncan, Frank Johnstone and Arthur Lyon served many years as ushers and ticket collectors until sanity left the world as we know it with the arrival of the Second World War. Len Preddy was a master projectionist and was highly regarded by many.

Down towards George Street was the furnishing store of Butterfields. This establishment provided furniture, bedding, carpets and electric goods to hundreds of South Canterbury residents at a reasonable price and on easy terms. My wife and I bought our first suite of a couch and two chairs from them and many times we were well looked after by Mr McErlane who must have spent most of his life with this establishment. Sadly, the premises stand empty today.

On the corner of George and Stafford streets stood Gabities Menswear which also served the district well. Unfortunately, when Mr Gabities retired, as happens with many businesses, there was no one to continue the daily running of the shop and no newcomer who wanted to invest in it.

Now if you cross Stafford Street opposite the old Butterfields store there are two quite old concrete buildings. One was the former home of the National Mortgage and Agency Co Ltd and which has been swallowed up by others with bigger mouths and deeper pockets and does not now exist. The other was the district office for the National Bank of New Zealand, which suffered a similar fate.

On the south-east corner of George and Stafford streets stood the once very proud and very popular Club Hotel. Like the Commercial, the Empire, the Crown and the Dominion hotels it succumbed to the pressures of modern business and demands. The proprietor of the Club Hotel was very supportive of all sporting organisations and many tales could be told about the happenings within its walls.

To the east of this hotel and across an access alleyway stood the impressive home of Dalgety and Co Ltd. It was a mighty two-storeyed building which stood lonely and isolated from all others. It was of superb construction which looked as if it would last forever. Yes, its electrical and plumbing facilities were out-of-date, but could have been modernised.

I have to say it, or rather write it, that during my nearly 80 years of residence here I have never seen any earthquake damage, not even a damaged chimney, in our district. Dalgetys are no more, having been swallowed up by others, but like all stock and station firms of the period they provided the best for all their clients' transactions and supplied all their farm and household supplies.

On the north-eastern corner of the junction of George and Stafford streets stood the Commercial Bank of Australia. Now gone but a very useful and co-operative bank in its day. Because of our close association with Australia quite a lot of their currency was brought back to New Zealand and I imagine most businesses, as ours did, would have quite a lot of it filtering through their transactions. The CBA allowed me to bank any of this currency in an account which we were able to use on our visits to Australia.

On the remaining corner, that is the north-western corner of the intersection, stood another bank. This time the Bank of New Zealand. It too was a bluestone building and on obtaining our nursery at Arowhenua it became necessary to have a cheque account. One lunch-time I made a special journey to the bank to deposit my wage for the week because I knew there was precious little in the account. While waiting in the queue to do this an officer of the bank came up to me and in a strong voice said, "Do you intend to keep your account open because you are two shillings and seven pence overdrawn". Absolutely dumbfounded I replied, "Do you think I am here to buy pies?" Worst of all this man was a senior staff member and worse still I had worked for him with garden work quite a few times before. The bank as it stood in those days had a garden area on both the south side and the north side which was affectionately tended by Mr Bentley who was resident in the building and a well known citizen in the community. He was prominent in several Timaru organisations, none the least of which was scouting. I believe he rose to the rank of commissioner. His wife, too, was prominent in the town's affairs, especially as a member of the St Marys Church choir. And so my meanderings of remembrances and happenings have once again come to an end. We must never forget those early pioneers who had the courage to travel half way around the world, to a place they had never seen, to establish a village, a town and then a city with little else than a faith in a place for their families and themselves.

STOCK AND STATION (photo): Identified as a re-enactment of the Cobb and Co Coach calling at the Club Hotel, photographed about 1960, this photograph clearly shows the Dalgety's Building on George Street. In the foreground are Mrs Eileen McKenna and Miss Betsy McKenna.

Corner of George St. and Stafford Street, April 2008

A close up view of Morton's.

South Canterbury NZGenWeb Project